Originally published in the December 2011 issue of the King’s Tribune, which you should definitely read, even though not all of it smells.
The manager is standing over me as I peruse his lengthy cheese platter.
‘The one on the far end is especially piquant,’ he says.
‘Oh yes. Especially,’ he says.
I am about to make two decisions, but I think I’m only about to make one.
‘Can you tell me more about it?’ I ask, leaning out from under the lee of his vast and slightly intimidating moustache.
I’m out at dinner in town with spouse/super-villain The Evil Sulphura. We don’t come to town for dinner much, partly because we have a four year-old son and partly because we live in a distant village where the weekly carriage out of town is often pursued by flaming torches.
As a result of this, I’ve put a huge weight of expectation on this dinner-and-a-show being a magical evening of sophistication and romance, which has been slightly dented by the evident conviction of QI Live’s producers that Australia has spawned no greater intellect or raconteur to sit on their panel than Jono Coleman.
He sat next to Julia Morris. I’m honestly not making this up.
So by the time we reach our smartly dim Spring Street restaurant, my desire for a magical experience has become tense and shrill.
‘Look at the gorgeous faux-antique French advertising prints!’ I gush. ‘Aren’t these giant incandescent globes whimsical? Isn’t it lovely how the waitress moved us away from the table full of businessmen making jokes with the word “poofter” in!’
‘Do you think we could order?’ says Sulph.
‘It’s all just so lovely and magical,’ I say.
After a lovely and magical spaghetti alla marinara dinner, the manager comes out personally with his cheese platter.
‘This one?’ he says. ‘A fine choice. I sourced this one personally from an obscure Croatian archipelago.’
‘I’ve been to an obscure Croatian archipelago!’ I cry delightedly. I’m experiencing a bonding event. ‘Maybe it’s the same one!’
The manager shrugs his moustache in a way that only subliminally connotes impatience. ‘What they do,’ he continues, ‘is they milk the youngest cows first, then the eldest ones, and the two cheeses are layered in a mould and wrapped in the ash of a tree that you’ve definitely never heard of. Here,’ he says, proffering his trencher. ‘Sample its aroma.’
I smell the cheese, and the evening changes.
‘I would like to order that one,’ I say in a small voice.
‘A terrific choice,’ says the manager’s moustache. ‘I’ll just plate it up for you.’
‘I’m a bit surprised you ordered that cheese,’ says Sulph after he leaves. ‘I saw the face you pulled when you smelled it.’
‘I didn’t pull a face!’ I say.
‘It was like it smelled bad. You seemed revolted by it.’
‘I was not!’ I hiss. ‘I was entranced by a wondrous sensual experience.’
We sit in silence until the cheese arrives.
‘Enjoy,’ says the moustache, and disappears.
I look at my cheese. Critically, I smell my cheese.
‘Tell me what it smells like,’ says Sulph.
‘It’s wonderful,’ I say. I take a deep breath. At second smell, I’m convinced. ‘It’s really wonderful.’
‘Describe it. Accurately.’
‘It’s grassy,’ I say. ‘There’s a tang in it, a really strong, grassy, organic tang. It’s a milky, farmyard smell, rich and fresh, pungent, like a …’
‘Go on,’ says Sulph. ‘Say it.’
I look her straight in the eye. ‘It’s like a cowpat,’ I say. ‘This cheese smells exactly like a fresh cowpat.’
There is a short silence.
‘I don’t care what you say,’ I say. ‘This is magical and amazing, and I’m not going to let you spoil it.’
I eat the cheese slowly, taking in the magical and amazing smell of a fresh cowpat with every soft, yielding bite.
A few days later, I come into the kitchen. ‘That cheese smelled like cow shit,’ I say.
‘Yes,’ says The Evil Sulphura, putting on the kettle.
‘Why did I knowingly order a piece of cheese that smelled like cow shit, then completely convince myself that I loved it?’
‘It was a big night,’ says Sulph. ‘You wanted everything to be perfect. And then …’ she says tentatively, pushing a cup of tea towards me.
‘Well, the manager came out specially, and you wanted to impress him. You know how quality facial hair pushes your buttons.’
I think about this. ‘I like me,’ I say.
We drink our tea.
‘Am I really that influenced by context?’ I say. ‘Are we all? What does it say about us that our opinions are so malleable? I always thought I was immune to suggestion. Does it really only take a nice night out and a hirsute man in a position of minor authority to make me eat shit and like it?’
‘Are you enjoying your tea?’ says Sulph.
I look down at it. ‘I don’t know,’ I say.
I go out to watch TV, but it’s Derren Brown and I don’t really enjoy it.
By the next time I go out to town, to a friend’s birthday drinks, I have conceived a secret plan. I will, I have decided, repel all influence and express only opinions I’m absolutely certain I formed myself.
I’m going to a bar in North Melbourne, so I’m also guaranteed a healthy population of ironic moustaches. I can, I tell myself, handle ironic moustaches.
I stride down Errol Street full of vigour and conviction. ‘That dress is ugly on her, but I like it,’ I think. ‘I find asphalt interesting and I don’t care who knows it! I don’t have an important opinion on most political matters! People who do accents on languages they don’t speak are awful!’
The bar is smartly dim. Its walls are covered with faux-antique French advertising prints. My conviction wavers, almost imperceptibly.
Randi is standing among a group of his friends I don’t know. He beckons me over. I harden my resolve.
‘Hello!’ says Randi.
‘Hello!’ I beam. ‘Happy birthday! Isn’t this place horrible!’
There is a silence.
‘These are my friends,’ he says.
I buy them all drinks. The barman is clean-shaven.
The next day, because no one else seems to be doing it, I sign up for Movember. I have made my decision.